What we should pay attention to

device pile

Paying Attention in the Digital Age is a recent post by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Warwick in England, on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog WorldWise: Commentary from globetrotting higher-education thinkers. He discusses the impacts of new media on attention and reading, and suggests that we may be in a transition to new modes of literacy. Here are some excerpts:

Students increasingly arrive at university having grown up in a world in which their habits of study are heavily influenced by new media. They are used to media acting as a continuous stream of content that is more like a river of images than a page of text. According to one account, that means much shorter attention spans, much greater attention to visual modes of understanding, greater modulation of time, more and more reliance on interfaces, and so on. (See, most recently, Stephen Apkon’s The Age of the Image.)

Now, I think it is true that our students have become accustomed to being presented with bite-size chunks of information in ways that can leave their instructors concerned and frustrated about their ability to read in depth. See just the latest story in The Chronicle about the reading habits and use of social media by students. Again, look at the way in which news is presented on younger-demographic sites like Vice to see how increasingly entertainment and news are mixed together in ways that are, well, entertaining but also often profoundly suspect in the way that they encourage readers to see the world as a resource to be consumed rather than as a responsibility. (Much of the same could be said about many newspapers.)

But does all this presage the death of Western civilization? I doubt it, and for three main reasons. [read more]

We also discussed this in our Honors colloquium this spring, The Web’s Impact on Our Mind and Future, and I blogged about a new report on the hyperconnected life of millennials yesterday.

The evolution of new media and their impact on us raises profound questions about our ways of being in the world and about the role of education. If we are in a transition from a text-based culture to an image-based culture, does this spell the end of literacy, as Chris Hedges suggests in Empire of Illusion: The End Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle or does it lead us to new, more visual modes of literacy and storytelling, as Stephen Apkon argues in his just released The Age of Images: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, and whom Thrift mentions approvingly.

Or are we perhaps already too far advanced in ‘amusing ourselves to death,’ as Neil Postman warned about almost 30 years ago? As Postman argued then that the problem is not entertainment as such but the tendency to present everything, including the most important things, as entertainment, Thrift suggests now that the transformation of news into infotainment encourages us ‘to see the world as a resource to be consumed rather than as a responsibility.’

Could the same be true for what some see at least as a partial transmutation of education into edutainment? Could both be connected by the transformation of public citizens into primarily, if not exclusively private consumers, and of adults into children, as Benjamin Barber argues? Our core course, Citizen & Self, systematically explores these questions, as does honors education more generally.

Could it be that the true value of a liberal arts education is less about how to think and more about what to think about, as David Foster Wallace suggests? Could that also be the true purpose of critical thinking?

If so, how do we as educators get our students to think more deeply about the most important challenges of our time? And who decides what is most important?

Science leaves no room for doubt. It unequivocally states that the greatest challenge of the 21st century is our collective response to environmental degradation and resource depletion in general and climate change in particular, in order to achieve if not sustainability, at least resilience. Judging from our collective response on a global scale so far, we hardly seem to pay attention, but rather appear to be increasingly distracted by other, less important things – and it seems the more so the worse the situation becomes.

Ecology, broadly understood as the science and philosophy of the relationships and interactions not only between natural systems and their environment, but also between human, social, and technical systems (technology) and their environment, seems to offer us the best chance to better understand our complex world and to better respond to the challenges it poses. Thomas Homer-Dixon is confident that ecology will become the ‘master science‘ of the 21st century, just as physics was the ‘master science’ of the 20th century. While I agree that it should be, I am not so sure that it will be. Felix Guattari refers to this integration as the ‘three ecologies.’ ‘Ecology of mind’ is the term Gregory Bateson coined to describe culture as a mutually interdependent web of existence in which individuals and society shape each other.

In a forthcoming paper on how best to globalize honors education with a focus on cultivating global competence for the 21st century, I will conceptualize and operationalize global honors education as global ecological education as outlined above.

In Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World (2011), Veronica Boix Mansilla and Anthony Jackson define global competence as ‘the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.’

My experience is what I agree to attend to. (William James)

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. (Annie Dillard; my emphases)

How, then, do you see and act in the world?

As a gas station:

Nature becomes a gigantic filling station, an energy source for modern technology and industry. (Martin Heidegger)

Gas, Edward Hopper, 1940

Gas, Edward Hopper, 1940

Or as Pachamama:


Our individual and collective well-being and quality of life may well depend on it.

In King Lear, Gloucester, who is blind, answers: ‘I see it feelingly.’

This entry was posted in Academics, Honors Salon, Research, Transdisciplinary, What We're Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *